3D printing has been around for over 20 years, but now it’s ready for mainstream manufacturing. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the U.S. manufacturing industry was very labor-intensive, low-tech and centered around individual strength and stamina. Over the last two decades, the focus shifted to outsourcing manufacturing practices to lower labor costs.
Today, time is our most precious commodity. With a new class of better performing machines, available materials and our ability to deliver parts that are true to their mechanical properties in quality, 3D printing is set to transform manufacturing.
From its initial conception, 3D printing has had the potential to change the way goods are manufactured. The potential benefits have strategic implications: flexibility, time-to-market, customization, distributed manufacturing and much more. Although challenges remain in the adoption of 3D printing, the opportunities are far greater.
Last month, Jabil sponsored a 3D printing trends survey, focusing on predictions about the future of 3D printing while taking a look at current realities. Conducted by Dimensional Research, a third-party research firm, the survey was designed to reveal the experiences and opinions of the professionals who are “in the trenches” making decisions about the adoption of 3D printing.
Manufacturers are not sitting on the sidelines watching the evolution of 3D printing, they are already using the technology. Eighty-one percent of manufacturers who responded to the survey reported that they’re using 3D printing today. This is encouraging as it means that companies already are looking for opportunities to integrate additive manufacturing technologies within their established processes. According to the survey, the aerospace and medical devices industries are leading the way.
Although 3D printing is on the road to becoming commonplace, the extent of its current use is limited for most manufacturing companies. Among those that have adopted 3D printing, far and away the most common use is for prototyping, with 70 percent reporting they use it for the practice.
Thirty-six percent of manufacturers report using 3D printing for production. I believe this to be an early sign of good things to come.
While prototyping remains the most accepted use of 3D printing in the majority of industries, production through 3D printing presents an incredible opportunity. Medical and dental markets have already begun embracing 3D printing as a full-scale production process and are reaping the benefits. The U.S. hearing aid industry converted to 100% additive manufacturing in less than 500 days, according to the Harvard Business Review. No company that stuck to traditional manufacturing processes has survived.
The strides made in the development of 3D printers are empowering companies to experiment with new applications that were not previously possible. As the cost for 3D printers decreases and the speed at which they can help a company scale production increases, they will become more accessible to transform the entire manufacturing industry.
We have also witnessed dramatic innovations in the materials available for 3D printing. The ability to work with metals, ceramics, and composites—instead of just plastics—has opened doors to a world of potential. Despite this, the survey revealed that 81 percent of manufacturers still use plastics and polymers as the mainstay material. Download the full 3D Printing Trends report.
3D Printing Growth Trends
The outlook for the future of 3D printing is extremely positive. The manufacturing stakeholders involved in decisions around 3D printing expect significant growth. Ninety-three percent of manufacturers polled expect their use of 3D printing to grow within the next five years.
Most survey respondents said they expect their growth to be significant, with 63 percent reporting that they expect their current 3D printing usage to at least double in the next two to five years. In addition to the growing acceptance of the practice industry-wide, once again the accessibility of the technology will drive this growth.
3D printing has the potential to offer benefits throughout any organization, but most manufacturers reported that their engineering and development teams are championing the adoption of 3D printing. These teams, which typically are responsible for product innovation, are introducing this growing practice within their organizations.
Manufacturers Want to be First Followers
While manufacturing companies are lined up to dive into 3D printing, most are waiting until they start to see success in their industry or among competitors before making a move. Only 12 percent of the survey participants consider themselves leaders in adopting 3D printing. The majority (67 percent) characterize themselves as being able to move quickly, but only once they see others having success.
3D printing is expected to impact the way the entire industry thinks and operates. Ninety one percent of manufacturing stakeholders agreed there will be a big impact while one third believe the impact has already begun.
It’s only a matter of time.
Manufacturers Reap 3D Printing Benefits
Ninety-seven percent of manufacturing stakeholders see the benefits of 3D printing for their companies. The top advantages reported were:
- Faster time-to-market of new ideas
- Innovation in product design and performance
- Speed production times
- Increased customization and personalization
- Design freedom
- Cost reduction
- Reduce warehousing needs by printing on demand
While 3D printing has the potential for a wide range of benefits, not all companies expect to realize all potential benefits. For example, Aerospace companies will benefit most from innovation in product design and performance (75 percent), while Tooling companies have a greater likelihood of benefiting from faster time to market for new ideas (56 percent), and Automotive companies expect the greatest benefits in cost reduction (55 percent).
From Prototypes to Production with 3D Printing
While most manufacturing companies are using 3D printing in some form, it is not yet the norm to use 3D printing in production. Only 36 percent of survey respondents reported using 3D printing for production. Categorically speaking, some industries have already adopted 3D printing for production purposes. Therefore, different industries report different rates of printing production parts. Once again, manufacturers of medical devices and aerospace companies are most likely to report using 3D printing in production.
Using 3D-printed parts for production is an area where growth is expected. The vast majority of manufacturing stakeholders (93 percent) in the survey reported strong growth potential, including 38 percent expecting to at least double their use of 3D printing for production parts and 19 percent predicting production use to increase dramatically by a factor of five or more.
What’s Holding Back 3D Printing?
Despite the bullish attitudes toward the growth of 3D printing reported by manufacturing stakeholders, there remains a plethora of issues with existing solutions. Almost all manufacturing stakeholders reported facing some kind of challenges. Top challenges included:
- Lack of in-house expertise
- Cost of system equipment
- Cost of materials
- Part quality (i.e. integrity, strength, aesthetics)
- Limited selection of materials
- Technology limitations
- Difficulty in scaling operations
While manufacturing companies do face challenges around 3D printing, there is good news. Almost everybody believes these challenges can be overcome, which will require a wide range of factors to evolve.
Manufacturing stakeholders highlighted four concerns that will need to be addressed:
- Hiring and Training
- Financial Investments
- Change Management
- Innovation from Business Partners
Participants do not expect it will take long to solve 3D printing challenges. While only few expected them to be solved as quickly as this year (10 percent), more than half believed changes will happen within the next three years (55 percent).
3D Printing Trends Survey Demographics
Representing manufacturing professionals responsible for 3D printing decisions across industries like electronics, automotive, medical, aerospace, footwear and apparel among other industries, more than 300 individuals participated in the survey.
With representation from companies with 100 to more than 1,000 employees, the 3D printing trends survey represented professionals across a wide range of departmental responsibilities and seniority levels.
John Dulchinos is Vice President, Digital Manufacturing at Jabil. This article was originally published on the Jabil Blog.
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